When Drones Get Personal

So we’ve seen how a drone can deliver a package, but can one become a buddy with a camera?

Home deliveries are just one potential use of personal drones. Photo courtesy of Amazon

On "60 Minutes" the other night, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos made drones fun again. They're usually associated with clandestine warfare, but Bezos showed interviewer Charlie Rose--along with the millions of others watching--how the unmanned aircraft can be cool little gizmos that become a part of our daily lives--in this case by delivering stuff you ordered from Amazon right to your doorstep.

Bezos used the program to reveal the wonders of Amazon's "octocopter," a mini-drone with the capability of achieving the Holy Grail of e-commerce--deliveries within 30 minutes. This is still years away, as Bezos acknowledged, but it's clear he thinks drones will one day be as ubiquitous as Domino's drivers.

Bezos' demo had the desired effect--his octocopter was all over the Internet on Cyber Monday, burnishing Amazon's reputation as a company gliding along the cutting edge of customer service. Some derided the the whole thing as little more than a beautifully orchestrated publicity stunt, given the not insignificant hurdles commercial drones still need to clear. Other websites, such as The Telegraph in the U.K., piled on. It produced a list of nine things that could go "horribly wrong"--from drone hackers to long weather delays to packages falling from the sky.

The truth is, we won't really know all that can go wrong--or right--with commercial drones until closer to 2020, at least in the U.S. It could happen sooner, but the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been moving slowly and cautiously, not surprising, considering that we're talking about tens of thousands of pilotless vehicles buzzing around in public airspace. Extensive drone testing at six still-to-be-named locations won't begin until next year, almost a year and a half behind the schedule set by Congress.

Safety, though, is only one of the huge issues around drones. The other is privacy--most of those aircraft up there would have cameras. That figures to be an even dicier matter, and already, Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey has introduced legislation that would require the FAA to develop a privacy policy for commercial drones before it allows them to get airborne.

Me, my drone and I

But let's step back for a minute and forget about messy things like political and legal realities. If Bezos is right, more personal drones are inevitable. Many, no doubt, will be used to make deliveries. (That already appears to be happening in China.) But what else will they be able to do?

Plenty, if you believe some of the ideas that have been floated. And those little flying machines could become a lot more personal than most of us would have imagined.

Consider the possibilities:

1) I'm ready for my selfie: Not long ago, a group of designers from a product strategy firm named frog staged a workshop with the purpose of imagining ways that drones could become a much bigger part of our lives. One idea was an aircraft called the Paparazzi, and, true to its name, it would be all about following you around and recording your life in photos and videos. It would then feed everything directly to your Facebook page. Yes, it sounds ridiculously self-indulgent, but then again, who could have imagined our obsession with self portraits on phones?

2) Cut to the chase: Here's another idea from the frog workshop, a drone they named the Guardian Angel. Described as the "ultimate accessory for serious runners," it would act as a trainer or exercise companion by flying ahead and setting the pace. It could conceivably tap into data from a heart monitor a runner is wearing and push him or her harder to get pulse rate up. Or it could use data from a previous run and let a person race against himself. In short, these drones would be like wearable tech that you don't actually wear.

3) Take that, Siri: Researchers at M.I.T., meanwhile, have developed a personal drone app they've named Skycall, which serves as a personal tour guide. Sure, you can listen to your smartphone give you directions, but this app/drone combo would actually show you the way. It works like this: You tell the app on your phone where you want to go and it would then identify and contact the nearest unmanned aircraft. It would show up, like a flying cab, and lead you to your destination.

4) Allow me to revel in my greatness: A British drone maker has designed one that's a variation of the Paparazzi mentioned above, although his is geared more to outdoor types, such as mountain bikers,snowboarders and surfers. It tracks a person through a smartphone and, from overhead, takes a steady stream of photos and videos to capture his or her awesomeness for posterity.

5) An idea whose time has already come: Finally, Dan Farber, writing for CNET the other day, raised the prospect of what he called a "Kindle Drone." He sees it as a device about the size of a baseball, loaded with sensors and a camera, that would serve as a guard and personal assistant. On one hand, it could roam your house gathering data and generally making sure everything's in order. On the other, you could direct it to go find your phone.

Now that has potential.

Video bonus: Here's a drone in action in China, delivering a cake from the air.

Video bonus bonus: It's safe to say this is the only engagement ring delivered by drone.

Video bonus plus: Need to map the Matterhorn. No problem, drones at your service.

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